I grit my teeth and push on through the driving rain, clambering up slippery rocks and increasingly muddy trails and wondering what exactly made me give up a perfectly good morning reading in bed with a nice cup of tea for this? Was this a manifestation of a mid-life crisis in my late fifties?
We were having such lovely weather for December, warm and sunny, until the dawn of my first trail running race, I awoke to overcast skies. At the village of Bouleternère, there was a crowd of runners rearing to go, some sprinting up and down the semi-dark streets to keep warm in the cool grey morning. I started off okay, certainly not pushing myself that hard but keeping up somewhere in the middle of the pack which gradually spread out once we started some serious ascents. The rain came down about midway through the course, light at first and then increasingly torrential December rain. By this time I was in the woodland trails on the downward sections I found myself slipping and sliding down muddy paths, on an adventure which, once one banished any fear from one’s mind, became quite exhilarating!
At 16km and 1000+m dénivelé (altitude climb) the Trail du Dénivelé de Noel at Bouleternère is a mere kindergarten stroll for experienced trail runners, but it was certainly a good baptism and a first step for me towards my bucket list goal of taking part in the Championnat de Canigou, racing up and down Canigou Mountain.
When I lived in Africa in my twenties and early thirties, I used to go running quite regularly and back in 1987 I competed in the Rössing 15km fun-run in Windhoek where I was living at the time. I remember being proud that I had completed that distance notwithstanding the fact that no hills were involved. I felt reasonably fit and the dry desert climate was great for running, not to mention the training altitude of 1600m above sea level.
Over the following years, my running became less frequent. I got into cycling instead, but more for the gentle exercise and never for competitions in triathlons or Iron Man events which were ubiquitous in southern Africa at that time. When I moved to Australia, I remember running 10km on the beach once shortly before I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism which the doctor described to me as the body’s equivalent of having the foot flat down on the accelerator but with the clutch disengaged. I remember my muscles became a bit shaky after exercise and so I toned it down a bit. I was luckier than most people and the disease went into remission after a year of treatment. I returned to cycling and the odd short distance jog.
When we moved to France in 2013 my bike was still my main form of exercise and it wasn’t until a couple of years later when a friend introduced me to a book aptly named “The Cool Impossible” that I contemplated taking up running again. The book was by Eric Orton, the coach who had trained Christopher McDougall, the author of the trail running classic “Born to Run” which was in large part about the benefits of the ‘natural’ barefoot running style, native to the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. Back in the 1980s in Namibia, I used to go running around a salt pan with the Ju’/hoansi, the African Bushman in the Kalahari where I had lived for a couple of years. I have always had a lot of respect for the wisdom of indigenous people, and so the Tarahumara angle and their natural running style had me hooked.
I started taking up training exercise using a slant board to strengthen all the stabilising muscles around my feet and bought some minimalist barefoot running shoes. Gradually I increased my running distances from around the Aspres hills directly facing MSJ. It was great to just put on my running shoes and head out from the front door into the wilderness. I know I would not have been so motivated if the scenery around me as I ran was not so magnificent.
I started entering some of the local races, including the one from Bouleternère followed by the La Salte Rocs Trail near Rodes. When I first heard of this race I remembered bits of Latin from my youth and imagined the race might involve leaping over rocks, which indeed it did! My minimalist shoes were not quite the ideal footwear for such rugged terrain, but I did manage to complete the course, suffering only a minor sprained ankle. It was quite a cool morning as I remember and I wore my blue jacket on top of my running shirt.
I was gradually getting in form for the big event, but decided to do one more little race before the big event. The trail de Caixas in 2018 was just 14km with an ascent of around 700m around an old quarry. I thought it would be a doddle but it was much tougher than I had expected because the steep bits were that much steeper, and I’m definitely a lot slower on these inclines! Descending was another matter. I loved the feeling of speed going downhill and so tended to push myself headlong, helter-skelter especially when I felt the finish line was near. Confidence came before a fall, quite literally for me and I tripped at the bottom of a slope, rolling into a gully. My headphones were ripped off and for the last stretch of the race, I held the broken pieces in my hand as I ran rather sheepishly into the village. However I enjoyed the race and made it in a reasonable time.
As the summer of 2019 wore on and the big race drew nearer, I realised that I had to push my distances up. It wasn’t easy especially when a heat wave in late June pushed the temperatures up soaring into the high 30s, but on 22nd day of that month I still managed to do a run, about the same distance as I would have to cover for the Championnat du Canigou although less than half the altitude.
As the final day came closer, my friends Rosie and Andy who owned and managed Canigou Lodge just outside Vernet-les-Bains invited me to stay at their place on the night before so I could be fresh and ready the following morning without having to drive from Ille-sur-Têt. The last past of this sentence was certainly true, but unfortunately, I don’t think I have ever had a worse night’s sleep or rather, lack of it. Despite having had a hearty bowl of porridge, and having taken a sleeping pill that in normal circumstances would have knocked me out in an instant, adrenalin must have been flooding my whole nervous system with over-anticipation of the most physically challenging event of my 57 years.
I got myself up and made some more porridge, plus numerous cups of coffee, filled up my water bottle and looked quizzically at Rosie who wanted me to pose in her kitchen for a pre-race photo.
I made it early to the start line in the middle of Vernet-les-Bains and hung around jogging on the spot with fellow runners in the cool air until at 7h00 sharp, the gun was fired for the start. For the first part of the race we progressed as a jostling crowd along the road towards Casteil, and then up a fairly wide track. Young men whizzed past me seemingly on a sprint to the summit, while I felt like closing my eyes, lying down on the side of the track and going for a nice snooze as my lack of sleep had finally decided to catch up with me!
However, the effort of the steep gradient up towards the Col de Jou soon jolted me out of my reverie and the small crowd of well-wishers at various stages along the way, gave huge moral support to keep my legs moving one in front of the other. Once we reached Mariailles, the going got a bit easier as the path became more level, if rather stony in parts. It wasn’t until the final rocky ascent that the going got really tough and I passed at least a couple of people whose faces showed a degree of agony that I’d rather not dwell on as they collapsed by the side of the trail.
The final ascent was via a rocky ascent called the ‘chimney,’ which funnelled us runners into a rather narrow passage way up to the summit. In fact a polite queue had built up at the bottom which was just as well, since a mass stampede for the peak might well have resulted in a lemming like end for many!
Making it to the cross at the summit was an achievement on the best of days, but on a race day it held special significance and many reached out to hold it as well as taking selfies of themselves in front of it (myself included!)
The downhill leg down the other side of the mountain via the Cortalets refuge was an endorphin filled blur. I love running downhill and I think the highlight of the entire crazy event came as I was racing down through the pine forests. I tripped over a root, diving headfirst into a perfect somersault which brought me straight back on my feet and into my running stride. I hardly noticed that I had tripped, it was all in one smooth movement and the closest I think I have ever been to being what some athletes call the “flow state.”
As we descended towards the lower slopes the heat was starting to build up especially as we were approaching the middle of the day. I was very glad of the intermittent lemonade stalls which temporarily slaked my seemingly un-ending thirst.
I arrived back in the streets of Vernet-les-Bains before 13h00 about five and three quarter hours after I had departed. I was in such a focused, endorphin filled state that I didn’t see her, but my dear wife Kate was waiting in the crowd to catch a glimpse of me on my final dash down the hill and managed to grab a rather unflattering photo of me gasping for the last breaths that would bring me to the finish line.
I had made it and gained a tick on my bucket list. I was satisfied and happy. But I am not really a competitive type, and racing is definitely not my thing. As I contemplated the event which had indeed felt like a mission, I recalled the lines spoken by the protagonist, Captain Willard in one of my all time favourite films, Apocalypse Now.
“ Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.”
I still enjoy running in the hills around Mas St. Joseph. Trail running is something I do for enjoyment, for the sheer love of being out in the landscape, feeling like I am a part of it, but I don’t need to feel that I am competing with other runners, or even with myself or the clock. I enjoy encouraging others to experience the blissful feeling of running in the hills and am always happy to offer whatever small advice I can. There are ultra-trail running legends in our area, such as the great Thierry Gasparini or my friend the alpinist Charlie Buffet both of whom were inspirational in getting me started, but I am not of the same calibre as those who would run more than 100 miles or more up and down mountains. I am really quite content to run at a leisurely pace in the gentle hills around MSJ as long as my body allows me to!